2010 NFL Playoff Preview: Saints Look To Repeat; Patriots Look for 4th Ring
Seventeen weeks ago, if you told me that the Vikings and Cowboys would post sub-.500 records and not even sniff the playoffs, while the sub-.500 Seattle Seahawks would be a division champion and the 11-5 Bears would be a No. 2 NFC seed to a high-powered Atlanta Falcons team, I would probably tell you to either give up on your sports writing dreams or sign yourself up for sports rehab.
OK, I goofed up. I'll admit. In the preseason, I had a Jets-Cowboys Super Bowl (could still be half true!), and a Cowboys-Vikings, Jets-Ravens NFC-AFC Championship respectively (still could be true on the AFC side).
That's just the NFL, I suppose.
In a year when 7-9 was good enough to win the NFC West (C'mon, 7-9?! Seriously?! By the way, I had the 49ers winning the division at 10-6), and the Patriots looked again like the Patriots of 2001 to 2007, it's no surprise that anything can happen in the NFL Playoffs.
At this point, I expect something crazy to happen.
I expect madness. I expect hysteria. I expect one of those we-never-saw-it-coming Super Bowls.
So as the Saints prepare to defend their title, the Patriots look for four championships this century, the Packers look to run the tables after going from being out of the playoffs in Week 15 to the No. 6 seed in Week 17, and the Seahawks look to shock the world. It's time to try and predict the 2011 NFL Playoffs.
Even though I'm probably 100% wrong on everything I'm about to say.
NFC Wild Card: No. 5 Saints vs. No. 4 Seahawks
The Saints are favored by 10.5 points, New Orleans is 11-5 while Seattle is 7-9. New Orleans' Drew Brees was second in the NFL in passing touchdowns (33), third in passing yards (4,620) and 12th in QB rating (90.9).
New Orleans outscores their opponents 384-307 while Seattle was outscored 407-310.
Seattle has a little bit of momentum after defeating the Rams 16-6. New Orleans is coming off a 23-13 loss to Tampa Bay. (Granted, New Orleans rested their starters for the greater majority of the game).
But one of the most underrated advantages in the NFL playoffs is the home-field advantage. New Orleans will have to travel several thousand miles to Qwest Field—the NFL's loudest stadium. Furthermore, the forecast calls for a rainstorm to arrive at halftime.
In terms of X's and O's, it's obvious that the advantage is for the Saints. They have the third best passing offense in the NFL, an aerial assault that led them to a Super Bowl XLIV victory.
But the Achilles heel for New Orleans is their 28th ranked ground game. The loss of Reggie Bush and now the loss Pierre Thomas greatly affects this team. They've become one-dimensional.
Furthermore, the New Orleans Saints have never won a road playoff game in team history.
I think that's about to change on Saturday.
New Orleans is simply too overpowering for Seattle to handle.
Winner: New Orleans 28-10
AFC Wild Card: No. 6 Jets vs. No. 3 Colts
In my opinion, this is the most intriguing matchup of the Wild Card weekend.
It's a re-match of last year's AFC Championship game in which Indianapolis defeated New York 30-17 at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Rex Ryan has said, "we want revenge for last year's title-game loss." And leave it to Rex to start jawing.
Indianapolis has been ravaged with injuries all season long. Peyton Manning has had to adjust to life without his star tight end Dallas Clark, erratic play by WRs Austin Collie, Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon.
But remember in their 2006 Super Bowl run they got that run defense game going in the playoffs after being the 32nd-ranked rushing team in the NFL?
It's happening again.
The Colts have allowed an average of 66 rushing yards in each of their last three games.
And the ground game is something the Jets have relied on.
New York comes in with a sophomore quarterback in Mark Sanchez, who statistically has had a very pedestrian season (3,291 passing yards, 17 TDs, 13 INTs, 75.3 QB rate). But when the Jets needed him the most, he's pulled through. (I point to the Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Detroit games).
But one thing New York has relied on all year is their fourtth ranked rushing offense and their second ranked defense. Rex Ryan loves the old-school style of football, and his Jets emulate that—a punishing ground game coupled with a game-managing QB and weapons of receivers, a top-notch defense who kills you in almost every category, and most importantly (according to Rex), a team with a winning attitude.
In the end; Indy has the "X" factor of Manning, but for the Jets to win, it's ultimately going to come down to either a coming-out party by Mark Sanchez or a smash-mouth defensive performance.
I see one of those happening.
Winner: New York Jets 24-17
AFC Wild Card: No. 5 Ravens vs. No. 4 Chiefs
Baltimore has been a curious team for me the past several seasons. They've become a consistent playoff contender—trouncing New England last season and making the AFC Championship the year before. But they haven't quite been able to get over that hump.
They begin their playoff quest in Arrowhead Stadium against what could be the NFL's surprise of the year team Kansas City Chiefs. Virtually nobody had the Chiefs overtaking the Raiders, let alone the Chargers in the AFC West, yet here they find themselves three wins away from a Super Bowl birth—which would be their first since 1970.
This not only is Kansas City's first playoff game since 2007, but it's their first home playoff game since their 38-31 loss to Indianapolis in 2003. They're hungry, and they're ready to shock.
Baltimore comes in with quarterback Joe Flacco, who would be making his sixth career playoff start on Sunday while Kansas City comes in with Matt Cassel, who makes his first playoff start.
Kansas City has an underrated offense with Jamal Charles and NFL-leading touchdown receiver Dwayne Bowe. But Baltimore's punishing defense will be enough to stuff the Chiefs.
All Joe Flacco has to do is manage the game, hand off to Ray Rice and let his defense go to work for him.
Winner: Baltimore Ravens 17-7
NFC Wild Card: No. 6 Packers vs. No. 3 Eagles
If Michael Vick's comeback story isn't one of the greatest of all time, I don't know what is.
But the NFL phenom-turned felon-turned NFL darling needs to win with his football skills.
And are his football skills, though spectacular, enough to take down the Packers defense?
You see, any way you look at it, the Green Bay Packers are the NFL's most dangerous team coming into the playoffs.
In a win-and-in situation against Chicago in Week 17, they didn't bat an eye taking down the NFC North Champions 10-3.
But Aaron Rodgers is 0-for-1 in the NFL playoffs—with that one loss coming off a fumble-turned-touchdown against the Arizona Cardinals last season.
Philadelphia gets a home game, a place where they're a modest 4-4, welcoming in a Green Bay team whose 3-5 on the road.
Philadelphia's high-powered offense is one of the NFL's elite, but Green Bay's defense is hitting their stride at the right time. Clay Matthews and AJ Hawk are playing like the animals they were thought to be. The defensive line has a stand-up and punish you mentality. And those lurking corners and safeties are always lurking.
I smell upset.
Winner: Green Bay Packers 38-30
NFC Divisional: No. 6 Packers vs. No. 1 Falcons
Following their Week 16 loss to New Orleans, which happened to be their first and only home loss of the season, Atlanta bounced back in Week 17—destroying Carolina—and has had a weekend off and two full weeks to prepare for this game.
Atlanta has looked virtually unbeatable in the NFC all season (10-2 against the NFC, 13-3 overall). Matt Ryan's sixth-best 28 touchdowns, Roddy White's NFL-best 115 receptions, 1,389 receiving yards and 10 touchdown catches and Michael Turner's 1,371 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns have all combined for the NFL's fifth-highest scoring offense.
There's no way Atlanta can lose at home, right? Especially against a No. 6 seed team?
Green Bay actually benefits from playing in Atlanta. They're one of the two teams in the playoffs (Chicago being the other) that is built on speed. Greg Jennings, Aaron Rodgers and the offense are 4-2 indoors this season (the two losses being a close 20-17 loss to Atlanta and an Aaron Rodgers-less loss to Detroit in Week 14). The defense plays better indoors (they average 10 less points allowed when indoors) as their footing is much better, and their speed can match up against anybody.
Winner: Green Bay Packers 31-27
AFC Divisional: No. 6 Jets at No. 1 Patriots
I've poked. I've prodded. But I have yet to find a true flaw in the New England Patriots.
They have all the elements to win a Super Bowl;
A superstar quarterback who has experience, stats, leadership and most importantly the skills.
A punishing defense.
A great run game led by Benjarvus Green-Ellis.
A great receiving core led by a healthy Wes Welker.
A top-notch coaching staff, which there's no argument from me that says "The Hoodie" is one of the best of all time.
Home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
What's not to like about the Patriots?
I certainly don't see them losing this game, no matter what Rex Ryan tells you about his "Super Bowl Bound" New York Jets.
Winner: New England Patriots 30-13
NFC Divisional: No. 5 Saints vs. No. 2 Bears
The defending champs head to Chicago to play the Chicago Bears.
Jay Cutler makes his playoff debut after, what many are calling, a terrible Week 17 performance against the Green Bay Packers.
But I feel that Jay Cutler can get it done. His offense has been one of the highest-scoring offenses over the second half of the season, and Matt Forte has re-awoken to rush for more than 100 yards per game several times in the past few weeks.
The Bears defense could be (relax, I said could be) the best defense in the playoffs. Julius Peppers anchors the defensive line as Israel Idonije, Tommie Harris and company are sacking quarterbacks left and right as well as leading the NFL in rush defense. Brian Urlacher is having one of his best seasons of his career while DJ Moore, Chris Harris and Charles "Peanut" Tillman are all having career seasons.
Enter the New Orleans Saints. The Drew Brees-led Saints are 0-3 against the Bears, all three of which were played in Soldier Field, including Chicago's 2006 NFC Championship game victory.
Now, I have no doubts the Bears can win this game. New Orleans is coming off their first road playoff victory in team history, but they did it without a run game. Therefore, the Bears will focus their defense on Drew Brees, bring the pass-rush on him while keeping Urlacher and Briggs dropped back to spy Brees.
I think this could be the surprise of the playoffs as Chicago advances to their improbable second NFC Championship game in four years.
Winner: Chicago Bears win 27-10
AFC Divisional: No. 5 Ravens vs. No. 2 Steelers
It's quickly become one of the NFL's top rivalries, and now, it's a re-match of the 2008 AFC Championship game for a chance to go to the AFC Championship game.
After surrendering the AFC North title to the Steelers, they're hungry for their own form of revenge.
Ben Roethlisberger has had consistant play in the NFL playoffs over his career—winning two Super Bowls.
But now, Baltimore is much more hungry to take down the Steelers.
Joe Flacco and Ray Rice will have to play considerably better than they did in last week's victory over Kansas City; they can't sleep walk.
But in the end, this one will come down to defense.
And Baltimore is the better defense.
Winner: Baltimore Ravens 14-10.
NFC Championship: Green Bay Packers vs. Chicago Bears
In a head-to-head matchup, this game is a coin toss.
In Week 3, Chicago defeated Green Bay 20-17 after a late tie-breaking Robbie Gould field goal. But in Week 17, Green Bay got their revenge with a 10-3 victory that punched their playoff tickets.
Now, the two will battle it out for the third time this season for a chance to play on football's greatest stage.
This would be Aaron Rodgers' and Jay Cutler's first-career conference championship game.
This would be Mike McCarthy's and Lovie Smith's second-career conference championship game.
A young Green Bay defense faces off against a young Bears offense.
A young Green Bay offense led by Rodgers goes against a savvy veteran Bears defense.
Literally, you can pick your poisen.
The game will be played at Soldier Field, where the Bears are 6-3 (including playoffs). But the playoff, road-warrior Packers look to become the second sixth-seed team in NFL history to make a Super Bowl.
But the buck stops here.
Give me the Bears to edge out a close win and advance to Dallas.
Winner: Chicago Bears 21-17
AFC Championship: Baltimore Ravens vs. New England Patriots
The last time Baltimore rode into New England in the playoffs, they punched the Patriots in the mouth.
Ray Rice ran all over New England en route to Baltimore's 33-14 win.
Don't think New England forgot that.
New England just flat-out overmatches the Ravens in every category.
This game will come down to who has more heart and who makes the last mistake.
I'll take Tom Brady over Joe Flacco to not make that mistake any day.
Winner: New England Patriots win 27-24
Super Bowl XLV: New England Patriots vs. Chicago Bears
So here we are, the pantheon of football.
The Super Bowl.
And who would've thought the Chicago Bears would be here?
Call me a homer, but I most certainly didn't. I thought they'd be a 10-6 team battling with the Packers, Vikings, Falcons and Cowboys for a Wild-Card slot.
Now, they're set to seek their first Super Bowl title since 1985.
As for New England, many thought they'd be a contender, but nobody, and I mean nobody, thought they'd be in the Super Bowl. I had them going as far as the AFC Championship in the preseason.
But here we are.
So who will win?
The two teams squared off in a snowy Soldier Field, but New England dismantled the Bears 36-7.
Now, the Bears get another shot.
Besides, historically over the past 15 years, if two teams meet in the postseason after meeting in the regular season, the team who lost in the regular season win the postseason game 86.6 percent of the time.
Remember when I said some teams actually benefit from playing in an indoor surface? Who were they? Bears and Packers.
The Bears get New England on the grandest stage at Dallas in their beautiful gem of a stadium.
In New England's last Super Bowl appearance, they blew their perfect season when Eli Manning found Plaxico Burress in the corner of the end zone for the victory (after David Tyree's miraculous catch). Brady can't forget that.
Don't think Urlacher, Briggs, Tillman, Smith, Hester, Harris, Gould, Maynard, Idonije or Kreutz forgot about their Super Bowl XLI loss. Let alone Peppers' loss to New England in Super Bowl XXXVIII when he was a Carolina Panther.
In a year of surprises, in a year when the NFL was turned upside down, in a year when just when you thought you had everything figured out, it was changed again. In the year of what could be the last 16-game NFL season or could be the last full football season in a while, I like the Bears to win the Super Bowl.
Winner: Chicago Bears win Super Bowl XLV 27-14.